When Money Talks, Congress Listens

With the Republican primary coming down to the wire, the candidates are running low on cash.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Super PACs have sprung up, with no limit on how much they can spend. According to OpenSecrets.org, Super PACs have raised $153 million so far, prompting a renewed debate over the effect this money will have on policymaking.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Money matters.

In multiple studies, scholars have found that policymakers pay no attention to the views of the bottom third of income earners and that the views of the upper third receive 50 percent more weight than the middle third. Take a moment to consider just how undemocratic that is.

There are many reasons for this behavior, but here are a few.

First, 75 percent of campaign contributions come from the top 25 percent of income earners and only 2 percent come from the bottom 20 percent.

Second, the median individual net worth of legislators is approximately six times the median net worth for the general population.

Third, throughout history, less than 5 percent of legislators have come from the working class, while more than 75 percent of them have been lawyers and businesspeople (who only comprise 10 percent of the general population).

Fourth, it’s easier for concentrated powers like corporations and unions to organize large-scale lobbying efforts than for dispersed groups like the homeless or the unemployed.

And fifth, only the rich can afford lobbyists and personal access to policymakers.

As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig points out in his new book Republic, Lost, legislators do not literally vote in exchange for money. That would be bribery, which is a crime. Instead, they listen to lobbyists whom they consider their friends. Maybe the lobbyist is an ex-employee or an ex-colleague or just a really smart, well-connected Washington insider. The lobbyist gives the legislator advice, and the legislator uses that advice to advance legislation that both of them support. It’s more like an exchange of gifts, says Lessig, than a cash transaction.

This is not a new theory. In the 1990s, social scientists Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl, and Mark Weller performed the most thorough investigation to date, interviewing hundreds of behind-the-scenes players in campaign fundraising. In their book Dollars and Votes, they concluded that the true value of money in politics is access to power. Only the top few percent can afford to take their case directly to policymakers, and that makes all the difference.

A few years ago, in the book Lobbying and Policy Change, a team of political scientists reported results from an unprecedented study where they tracked dozens of specific policies over time, including everyone who lobbied for or against the policies. The imbalance they found between the corporate elite and the rest of the population is stunning.

In a lobbying battle, the side with more high-level government allies won 78 percent of the time! Business corporations had a high-level government ally 74 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent for unions and 33 percent for citizen groups.

Similarly, the side with more “covered officials” lobbying won 63 percent of the time. Business corporations had a covered official lobbing 91 percent of the time, compared to 14 percent for unions and 24 percent for citizen groups.

“Where the mobilization of resources is unbalanced, we do find that the wealthy side tends to win,” they report. On average, business corporations spent $1 million on lobbying. Trade associations spent $1.3 million. Unions spent $0.5 million. Citizen groups spent $0.2 million.

Policy is made by the elite. Always has been.

You can overturn Citizens United. You can ban Super PACs. You can even institute public financing of elections. But you can’t take money out of politics.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. I’m saying this problem predates Super PACs. It goes so much deeper than lobbying and campaign contributions. The elite have always had the ear of Congress. They have always been Congress. They have always owned the media. They have always controlled the conversation. And they do not speak for us.


This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Consumer Guide: Laws and the People Who Make Them

This was supposed to be your Christmas present, but the holidays got away from me. Anyway, here it is: a new series to read and enjoy — and hopefully a practical one, at that! I am, admittedly, a book addict. What better use to put my addiction to than to review recently-read books for you! As an homage to my favorite music critic, I will title this series the “Consumer Guide” and will write one-paragraph reviews, concluding with a letter grade, ranging from A+ to F. A+ is reserved for the rare masterpiece, but most of the books should earn a B- or above, simply because I try not to buy bad books. — AWO

Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (Jacob S. Hacker & Paul Pierson)

Hacker and Pierson interweave two under-recognized, world-altering trends of the past few decades: the concentration of most economic growth in the top 1% (and, among them, in the top 0.1%) of the population and the explosion of corporate lobbying. Anyone who is not intimately familiar with both of these stories should read this book. But the questions left unanswered are shocking. Why did these trends begin in the late 1970s? If we don’t know what triggered it, how can we reverse it? The authors are rather cavalier, waving their hands at stagflation and declining corporate profits — never bothering, by the way, to acknowledge all the Marxists who have been warning about declining profits for a century-plus. David M. Gordon, for one, would be perturbed to learn his work fell on deaf ears, as would non-Marxists like G. William Domhuff, Michael Mann, and their sociologist brethren, who have spent a lifetime trying to convince political scientists to pay attention to the balance and behavior of power — especially corporate power. Hacker’s ego is too big not to claim credit for originality. Sorry, Jacob. The Power Elite was published in 1956…which begs the question of whether the explosion of corporate lobbying was, in fact, an expansion of power and not simply a new manifestation of it. Thomas Ferguson, Gabriel Kolko, and their ilk make a strong argument that Big Business has always been the puppeteer behind the curtain. Hacker and Pierson give short shrift to history before the 1970s. If economic stagnation is the answer, why did these ultra-conservative policies not follow the Great Depression or the Panic of 1907 or the long depression of 1893? This book’s ultimate weakness is its inability to offer a theory of political paradigm change. It is, however, the best political explanation of America’s recent economic transformation since Robert Reich wrote Supercapitalism.  A

Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why (Frank R. Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, & Beth L. Leech)

This overload of political scientists followed 98 legislative policies for 4 years, interviewing the key players and measuring every possible factor: the number of lobbyists, the amount spent, the number of competing sides, etc. What should result is an exciting, behind-the-scenes view of Congress’s sausage-making factory. Instead, this is a dreadfully boring testament to the old adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen,” especially when those cooks are political scientists. Page after page of trivial details give the impression that the book was written by first-year grad students who didn’t know how to filter the important findings. But I selected this book for a reason: There is valuable information here, only the authors leave you the job of digging it out of their mountain of data. The only needle that reporters found in this haystack was the finding that the side with more financial resources only wins 53% of the time. Put this way, it sounds like corporate America gets next-to-nothing out of lobbying, since their odds are barely better than a coin toss. This kind of misconception is where the authors could’ve put those PhDs to good use. For instance, they could’ve shown how their evidence proves the theory put forward by Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl, and Mark Weller in Dollars and Votes. Or they could’ve distinguished between issues where multiple corporate elites are battling (which is what the 53% mostly refers to) versus instances when Big Business is actually facing off against the little man (where their data show a decisive advantage for Goliath). Or they could’ve explained what the heck Tables 10.1 and 10.2 mean…since the proper conclusion is that corporate America does, in fact, rule Washington. Unless you’re a political scientist looking for data, you’re better off waiting until my book is published to learn “who wins, who loses, and why.”  C+